Moldovan opposition leader calls for better ties with Russia, China

Igor Dodon, Moldova's President and presidential candidate, speaks to the media at a polling station during the second round of a presidential election in Chisinau

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - The pro-Russian leader of Moldova's largest opposition party has called for better relations with Russia and China and urged other groups to join forces in fielding a single challenger to pro-European President Maia Sandu in an October election.

Sandu views Russia as one of the biggest threats facing Moldova, which is located between Ukraine and Romania, and has led the effort to join the European Union. A referendum on EU membership will take place alongside the presidential election.

Igor Dodon, the leader of the leftist Socialist party and a former president who was defeated by Sandu in 2020, said Moldova was ignoring its traditional allies, and its pro-European stance ran the risk of dragging the country into conflict.

"Let us return to a normal dialogue with our partners - Russia, China and other countries. This is what we should be doing," Dodon said in a weekly online broadcast. "There is a lot of work to be done."

Moldova, he said, should take no further part in military exercises with foreign partners - as have been conducted with U.S. and Romanian forces - or maintain large numbers of reservists.

"Everyone should understand that Moldova stands for peace and will not allow itself to be dragged into geopolitical quarrels as Ukraine has been dragged," he said.

Sandu sees EU membership for Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, as the best way to safeguard its sovereignty in the face of what she sees as Russian threats.

A poll published this week put support for Sandu at 30% versus 18% for Dodon. Recent surveys suggest Moldovans will back EU membership, with about 60% in favour of joining the bloc.

The Socialists and the smaller Communist party have denounced the referendum as a ploy to help Sandu's re-election bid.

The pro-Moscow "Victory" bloc, linked to fugitive Moldovan business magnate Ilan Shor, is campaigning under a "No to the EU" slogan. But Shor, who was sentenced in absentia last year to 15 years in prison for fraud, and his supporters have shown no inclination to join forces with the Socialists and Communists.

Dodon, a chess grandmaster, urged opposition forces to come up with a "worthy joint candidate able to defeat Sandu in a second round of voting," and suggested Alexandru Stoianoglo, a former chief prosecutor.

Stoianoglo was dismissed from his position for allegedly exceeding his authority and failing to press anti-corruption cases against prominent business magnates.

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas; Editing by Ron Popeski and Paul Simao)